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THEATRE ONLINE Demolition of an inclusive era

MARY CONWAY recommends a poignant account of what a vibrant local school meant to its community before it was targeted by developers

North West
Camden People’s Theatre

BUILT around the spoken testimonies of ex-pupils and teachers from the now-demolished North Westminster School in London, North West is very much a story of our times from Camden People’s Theatre.

An audio artwork created by director Anna Morrissey and sound designer Tris Kayo, it can be experienced either as an online captioned video or as a physical journey around the school’s former sites in Paddington, complete with map and audio accompaniment for your phone.  

The journey is brought alive by the voices of those who knew the school from the inside and they are all articulate, well-educated and full of affectionate memories. Together, they paint a vivid and heartfelt picture of a school which once united a community and brought together children from all nationalities and walks of life, enabling them to belong and feel safe.

In the five stages of a journey which visits the various sites of the old school, the voices of staff and pupils tell us of football in the playground, dancing in the brilliantly equipped studio theatre and getting caught up in occasional violence between kids from rival estates but, most of all, about feeling loved and energised and, ultimately, safe.

“It was so inclusive, one contributor recalls, “so magical in bringing people from all walks of life together,” while another describes it as “the soul of the community.”

The memories sound overwhelmingly authentic but never more so than when the speakers recall their overwhelming grief when the developers move in and the school is demolished, its testimony to their lives flattened and erased as if it – and they – had never been.

This is the story of how capitalism destroys the heart of a community with careless abandon, a tale that takes us from the dreams of the Inner London Education Authority — abolished by the Tories — and its comprehensive schools to the brutal resistance of Thatcherism and on to the funding crisis that bedevils our schools today.

It shows how the building of 20-storey tower blocks, the march of developers and the so-called gentrification in the Paddington basin stole the heart and soul of a community and replaced it with anonymity and greed. Where there were real, local people, now there are intruders who will never belong.

What sets out as a simple tribute to an ordinary school long-gone becomes, in the hands of Morrissey and Kayo, a vivid portrait of Britain today. Beautifully delivered and moving, it harks back to an era of hope, when properly equipped schools were to be the basis of a truly egalitarian society, with opportunity for all.

Until Sunday May 23. Pay what you can, details: cptheatre.co.uk

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